Should Runners Stretch?

stretch
“I couldn’t touch my toes with straight legs, but I could break 4 minutes for the mile.”
— Roger Bannister

Have you ever been told you need to stretch more? Maybe, you have been told that you are too tight and that if you stretch, you will get fewer injuries and be faster? Maybe, you have religiously stretched every single day and you swear that if you did not, you would get an injury and be sore all the time. Injured runners that I see in my clinic will often state, “I know I need to stretch more.” Do you really need to stretch? Or, is this just a common myth that has been allowed to persist for decades?

As a high school track and field/cross country coach and active runner, I understand that researching running performance is no easy task. But, if you take a dive in to look at what the research says about running and static stretching, you do see some general trends. A common myth is that stretching decreases injuries, boosts running performance, and decreases muscle soreness. However, current research indicates that stretching does not prevent injuries or boost running performance.1,2,3 Stretching, whether in the short-term or long-term, had no benefit to runners in terms of performance, preventing, injuries or reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).1

I have coached and provided treatment for a multitude of elite athletes who lacked flexibility. This is not merely an observation as a coach or clinician, however. Elite athletes tend to have less flexibility. If they had tried to gain flexibility, is it possible that they would not have remained elite? I like to think of muscles like rubber bands. If you stretch out a rubber band before you try to shoot it, it loses elasticity and will not shoot as far. This analogy is a simplification of a complex mechanism, but it makes sense that elite athletes are generally tighter.

There is little evidence to support static stretching as part of your warm-up. Yet, at almost every track and field meet or cross country meet, I see countless athletes sitting around stretching in preparation. Static stretching before you run can inhibit running performance for up to 1 hour.1 So, what can you do instead of stretching for a warm-up? A combination of some leg swings, lunges and drills is adequate to prepare your body for competition or a workout without the risk of diminishing your performance.

Based on the research, I recommend not wasting your time stretching and instead focusing on alternatives to boost running performance such as strength training (check out my previous blog on that) and adequate sleep (7-9 hours).4 I think that most runners spend too much time stretching and not enough time doing strength work. It is clear that more research needs to be done, but the current research trends towards not supporting the myth that stretching improves running performance, prevents injuries or decreases DOMS.

References

  1. Baxter C, Mc Naughton L. R., Sparks A., Norton, L., & Bentley D., (2017). Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Research in Sports Medicine, 25:1, 78-90.
  2. Yeung SS, Yeung EW, Gillespie LD. Interventions for preventing lower limb soft-tissue running injuries. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD001256. Published 2011 Jul 6. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001256.pub2
  3. Saragiotto BT, Yamato TP, Hespanhol Junior LC, Rainbow MJ, Davis IS, Lopes AD. What are the main risk factors for running-related injuries?. Sports Med. 2014;44(8):1153-1163. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0194-6
  4. Designed to Improve Athletic Performance and Recovery: A Systematic Review of Current Approaches. Sports Med. 2018;48(3):683-703. doi:10.1007/s40279-017-0832-x

Brian Damhoff DC MS

Owner, Elite Performance Institute, Naperville, IL | Assistant Track and Field Coach Naperville Central High School | Team Chiropractor Northern Illinois University Track and Field/Cross Country | Doctorate of Chiropractic | Masters in Sports Rehabilitation


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